Archives for category: Istanbul

It is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Not to overuse a metaphor, but hills seem to bear the city’s many brightly-colored buildings as if on waves, tossing them this way and that, until the horizon is an impossible distinction between the saturated buildings and the backdrop of dark, Balkan trees. The skyline is similarly confusing: neighborhoods rise and then give way to water: the Gold Horn, the Aegean and Black seas. Mosques like giant, many-domed spiders somehow dominate even the skyscrapers, leaning into their surroundings from the heights.

Watching the sun behind this particular set of lines is simply staggering.

It may have a long, dark history and a shady present, but today’s Istanbul is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I have just returned from my trip there for the conference between Turkish and Armenian NGOs, which went quite well, and am already yearning to go back. Lebanon is lovely, but there was something in Istanbul that I find lacking here in Zahle, in Beirut.

I know now, after some thought, what it was I felt absent in Lebanon. It is nothing new, but is cast far into a far more stark silhouette by my return from one of the world’s great cities. In Istanbul there is a sense of togetherness, of identity and comfort with oneself and one’s fellow citizens that I have simply not found here in Lebanon. True, the Lebanese strut around in Western clothes, indulge in fatty Western foods, and engage in Western intellectual discourse. But it is all somewhat of an exhibition, a show. I have never seen more made-up women in my life than here, nor men for that matter – to name a more superficial issue. In Turkey, there are those who dress smart and those who are more relaxed. There is a more encompassing sense of “modernity” (whatever that means) without the need to advertise. It is self-realizing, while in Lebanon it is self-congratulating.

There is a point where collective identity becomes so strong that it almost fades away completely, because a people can be so conscious of it that it becomes a non-issue. At least in Istanbul and among Turks, there is such profound attachment to the Turkish-ness that it is almost a non-issue, not worth mentioning unless called. There are profound (at times brutal) historical reasons for this, of course, but it exists nevertheless. As such, there is such a sense of ease with oneself and the environment that I was simply stunned. I was blown away by the number of Turkish-language bookstores I happened by, while in Lebanon, the freest country for Arabic literature, Arabic holds second place to foreign works – and then, good luck finding a decent bookstore.

This is from a public bus in Istanbul. I found it a nice image for, well, obvious reasons.

This issue, language, was the most potent message of all. In Lebanon, education means speaking Arabic poorly and code-switching with English and French as much as possible. The Lebanese pride themselves on being multilingual while they let Arabic die as a language of culture and knowledge. In Turkey, I was hard-pressed to find anyone outside of my hotel who spoke English at all. Coming from Lebanon, I was oddly relieved by this change. Here I finally had someone being happy with who he was. Turkish is the language of communication and academia in Turkey – it is as healthy as a language can be, and tells me that the Turks have more self-pride than even the Lebanese.

History has been nicer to the Turks than to the Lebanese, and Turkey is not without it’s problems. But it is just sad to watch as the most successful Arab nation gets rich through more forgetting. That I can hardly bear.

I can deal without 24-hour electricity, warm water, and even without the lovely Balkan weather. But it is hard to return to a country where people are so eager to seem like something else.


One of the four minarets added to the Hagia Sophia Church upon conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, when they turned it into a mosque. Today it is a museum.

There is no doubt that Istanbul shares the same sunlight as Beirut; the way it drenches and fulfills everything it touches, from the rolling hills to the watermelon-hawker, has the same quality of light without interruption, light as it is meant to be. Pigeons muster in the mosque courtyards and flutter windward at the slightest provocation. Looking around me, I forget at times that the pale houses and flats with their red-orange roofs are not in fact part of the hills that ring the city, but the product of human effort and, in Turkey, a crooked sort of persistence.

But I am not in Turkey to talk about politics – at least, not in so many words. One way or another, I am away in Istanbul for work, helping to cover a conference being held between our Armenian NGO partner ICHD and a Turkish NGO, which has at its heart the need to improve civil society relations between Turks and Armenians, whose tumultuous past is only beginning to show signs of calming.

OK, maybe that sounds a little political. But it’s they who will be doing the work, not me. I just get to cover the event and meet the partners. As well as eat lots of tasty, tasty food. Point being, I might be AFK for a little while, but expect to hear back from me soon enough.